Photo/IllutrationThe Asahi Shimbun

  • Photo/Illustraion

A woman checked up on her mother and brother at their house in Yokohama and froze in horror after seeing what was inside.

Her mother, 76, was lying dead on futon bedding with a white towel placed over her face.

When the sister opened a “fusuma” sliding door to the room of her 50-year-old brother, he was lying down and staring at a window.

The mother had been dead for around two weeks.

Records show that the brother had tried to call his sister and a clinic for help during this period. But he has been a “hikikimori” social recluse for more than 40 years, and his fears of the outside world prevented him from following through with the phone calls.

The sister, 46, had felt that her mother and brother were doing fine, despite her brother’s disorders.

However, after her body was found in November 2018, a memo in the mother’s handwriting was found in the brother’s desk drawer, saying: “Why don’t we die together when you or I feel like dying?”

Police said they could not determine the cause of death, but told the sister that it was likely a disease.

TRIED TO CALL FOR HELP

The case underscores the so-called 8050 problem, in which parents in their 80s take care of their hikikomori children in their 50s in one household. The situation can lead both parents and children to further social isolation.

An analysis of the telephone records at the Yokohama home showed that the brother pushed numbers to make calls after his mother died but hung up the phone before a connection could be made.

He was arrested last year on suspicion of abandoning his mother’s body. But prosecutors dropped the case about two weeks later after learning about his circumstances.

The sister recalled her feelings when she found her mother’s body: “I was filled with resentment about what he was doing. But at the same time, I was relieved that he was fine.”

According to the sister, her brother in his childhood had “selective mutism,” a type of anxiety disorder that makes it impossible to speak in certain social settings.

When his mother died, the disorder apparently worsened. He was also later confirmed to have autism.

Since his kindergarten days, he was almost unable to speak outdoors, the sister said. He could not attend elementary school, and eventually would not even talk to his family members. Instead, he communicated with his mother by writing notes.

According to sources, he responded to police questioning by nodding or writing down his answers.

“He looked like an ordinary middle-aged man,” said Isao Sawai, a lawyer who represented the brother.

Unwilling to venture outside, the brother grew vegetables on the balcony of the family home.

The sister was in her 20s when she married and left the family home.

After their father died six years ago, the sister visited the home almost every month, but the fusuma sliding door to her brother’s room was always closed.

She thought that her mother and brother were leading rather calm lives at the house. And she said she did not notice that her mother was being driven into a corner.

“She always kept saying to me, ‘I’m all right,’” the sister said.

FEELING ISOLATED

The sister said her mother consulted with a ward office about her hikikomori son around 2013. In 2015, the sister accompanied her mother for another consultation with the ward office.

According to the ward’s records the sister collected, a doctor had confirmed the brother had a mental disorder of selective mutism from his youth and was scared to go outside.

The mother applied for a disability pension for the son. But the application process was stopped without the sister’s knowledge.

Doctors had regularly checked on the brother at the home in Yokohama, but the mother called a ward staff member in April 2018 and asked for an end to the doctors’ visits.

A ward official of the division in charge told The Asahi Shimbun that the mother canceled the care.

For the time between the mother’s death and the discovery of her body, the brother survived by eating food that had remained in the refrigerator.

“If the sister didn’t visit him by chance, there was a risk that two bodies would have been found,” lawyer Sawai said.

40% OF FAMILIES STOP SUPPORT

The situation in which aging parents live together and provide financial support for middle-aged hikikomori children or those with no occupation can lead to further hardships, such as further isolation and financial woes, for the families.

In a number of incidents, like the one in Yokohama, the deaths of elderly parents are not reported by their hikikomori children.

A survey released in 2018 by KHJ Zenkoku Hikikomori Kazokukai Rengokai (KHJ national federation of groups of families of hikikomori) underlined the extent of the problem.

The survey covered 630 hikikomori and their parents. It found that 45 percent of the families that have received social support ended up canceling such aid from municipal organizations or medical organizations.

Even if they have reached the consultation stage, they can again feel isolated because of insensitive remarks by staff members who may be unfamiliar in dealing with hikikomori situations.

“Ending administrative support followed by isolation of families is a typical case in this issue,” said Masaki Ikegami, director of the federation and a journalist. “Society forces hikikomori people themselves and their families to think that ‘hikikomori are shameful’ or ‘this is our fault.’”

Ikegami added that people tasked with supporting hikikomori and their families may lack an understanding of their feelings.

POSITIVE SIGNS

After the death of her mother, the sister learned some new things about her brother.

Sawai told her, “Your brother likes the stand-up routines of the Bakusho Mondai comedians, doesn’t he?” The sister did not know he watched the comedy duo.

She also found many lines drawn in a dictionary in his room. The sister felt hopeful that her brother was trying to learn how to connect to the outside world.

After the mother’s death, the brother was certified as having a mental disorder and started receiving a disability pension.

He lives alone at the same home and relies on caretakers to do his shopping and other tasks.

The sister said that his acceptance of strangers in the house shows he is making the utmost effort.

She said: “In my young days, I felt distressed and thought, ‘I will not be able to get married because of such a brother. But now, I just want him to live however he wishes.”

She found another positive sign on recent visits. The fusuma sliding door, which had always been closed, is now half-opened.

After confirming that her brother is fine, she leaves letters for him in the kitchen and returns home.